Rural Health Initiative Discovery Health

South Africa is an exhilarating, spectacular and complex country. With its post-apartheid identity still in the process of definition, there is undoubtedly an abundance of energy and sense of progress.

A huge advantage of working in South Africa is the opportunity to travel with its wide open spaces, game reserves, mountain ranges and on to the brilliant coral reefs of the Indian Ocean The climate leads to a life outdoors, whether you enjoy a 'Braai' or 'game viewing' climbing in the Drakensberg or a exploring the coast line, there is something for everyone. To find out more information on the culture and attractions in South Africa log onto either...

Xhosa History and Society

At nearly 7 million, the Xhosa speaking population is the second largest ethnic group in South Africa behind the Zulu. Their traditional homelands are in the Amatola and Winterberg Mountains, where they settled sometime in the 1600s. While noted for their distinctive dress, the Xhosa are also well known for their unique language. The "clicks" in the Xhosa language always seem to give Westerners fits (the Xhosa people we met found that quite amusing!).

The Xhosa also have a rich history and vibrant social heritage. Their best known statesmen, Nelson Mandela, is merely the latest in a long line of social activists and prominent historical figures of Xhosa heritage. Please join us and our friends at Mgwali village as we take a look at this fascinating people.

Xhosa History

The Xhosa people share ancestry with the Bantu speakers who migrated into southern Africa sometime around the 2nd century AD. Little is known outside of the oral traditions concerning this period. By the 1600s, the Xhosa had firmly established themselves in the Eastern Cape region among the Amatola and Winterberg mountain ranges (they may have arrived as early as the 1400s). They uprooted and absorbed the indigenous Khoisian peoples living there at the time. As a result, the modern Xhosa share physical and cultural characteristics with their distant Khoisian cousins.

The first chief and acknowledged "father" of Xhosa society was named Tshawe. Although his reign cannot be accurately dated, it is generally accepted that he was the patriarch of loose confederation of clans that eventually became the Xhosa. At this period, the Xhosa were more of a group of related clans than a united nation. Although loyal to Tshawe, they were essentially sovereign chiefdoms, and governed their own day-to-day affairs. These clans clans expanded as needed to meet their needs, and soon Xhosa speakers stretched west to the Groot-Vis river, North into modern day KwaZulu/Natal, and inland to the Drakensberg mountains. These clans, however, were loyal to a local monarch, and no one chief ruled the entire nation. Some prominent chiefs of this period included Vusani of the Thembu clan; Gambushe of the Bomvana clan, and Faku of the Mpondo clan. The first of these chiefs whose reign can be dated by Western anthropologists is Phalo, who ruled from 1715 to 1775.

Phalo had two sons, Rharhabe and Gcaleka. Although Gcaleka was the rightful heir to Phalo's kingdom, Rharhabe develop a reputation (and a large following) as a fearless warrior. Eventually, rivalry between the two brothers resulted in civil war. Rharhabe was defeated and forced to flee west of the Kei River. There, he established a kingdom among the Xhosa currently living there. Unfortunately, this region was heavily populated and Rharhabe's arrival caused quite a bit of turmoil. Smaller clans defeated in battle were forced to settle elsewhere as Rharhabe sought to consolidate his power.

Rharhabe and his heir, Mlawu, were both killed during this period, and control of the clan transferred to Mlawu's son, Ngqika. Although the clan took Ngqika's name, he was too young to rule. As with Xhosa tradition, Rharhabe's other son, Ndlambe, served as ruler until Ngqika matured. As second son, Ndlambe had title, but no real authority--as soon as he was old enough, Ngqika would take over. Nevertheless, he supervised a major expansion in the size and power of the clan (now called the Ngqika).

By the late 1700s, this expansion resulted in the inevitable contact with the European settlers in Cape Colony. Both the Africans and Europeans depended on cattle as the fundamental economic asset. Thus, both groups competed for the prime grazing lands located west of the Great Kei river. In addition to fighting over grazing lands, raiding parties on both sides stole cattle and other livestock. The number and severity of the conflicts increased rapidly. By 1779, the situation had deteriorated beyond repair. Over the next 25 years, three Xhosa wars broke out. While these were mainly border skirmishes, they did cause more distrust between the Xhosa and Europeans.

One noteworthy development during this period was the short term alliances between Ndlambe and the Dutch settler (or Boers). In 1793, Ndlambe sought to defeat the remaining Xhosa clans west of the Kei River. This would make the Ngqika clan the paramount clan in the region and a major threat to their Gcaleka cousins to the east. This Second Frontier War was not much of a war at all. The Boers, eager to stop constant cattle raids, mounted a concerted attack and drove several smaller clans out of the lands west of the Groot-Vis River. There, Ndlambe waited with his armies and routed his fleeing cousins.

The border situation might have died down, but for the fact that young Ngqika was now eighteen, and ready to assume the throne. Ndlambe, of course, was not so willing to give up power, so he appealed to the clan. When this didn't work, he and his followers sought assistance from the Gcaleka, west of the Kei River. The Gcaleka, fearing the new Chief Ngqika would seek to rekindle and old rivalry, decided to support Ndlambe, and sent a small detachment to assist him and his followers. In a legendary battle, Ngqika defeated the force and took Ndlambe prisoner.

The plot thickened in 1795, when the British took control of the cape. Now an undisputed world power, the British colonial empire spread from South America to East India. They viewed their South African possessions the same way they viewed their other possessions--a resource to be mined. When the local population interfered with this endeavor, the population was unseated. They took this attitude to Ngqika with a suggestion that the Xhosa clans west of the Groot-Vis river relocate east to help resolve the border disputes. Ngqika happily agreed, knowing full well he had no authority over these groups.

Of course, these groups refused to comply and skirmishes with the British continued. Ngqika provided nominal assistance to his British allies, preferring to let them defeat his enemies across the Groot-Vis. This Third Frontier War lasted from 1799 to 1802 and solved little. While certain clans west of the Groot-Vis river were defeated, the British were never able to establish control of the region. Moreover, Ndlambe escaped, and gathered his supporters in the lands west of the Groot-Vis. There he consolidated the remaining clans and established a small, yet powerful chiefdom.

In 1811, the Fourth Xhosa War was sparked by continued border disputes. This time, however, the British were determined to secure their Eastern border once and for all. They once again enlisted the help of Chief Ngqika to control the cattle raids by Ndlambe and his followers. The war was over by 1812, and, with Ngqika's help, the British drove the Ndlambe east of the Groot-Vis River. This was important as it marked the first time the Europeans had made significant territorial gains against their African adversaries.

Ngqika's assistance to the British earned him their favor but cost him among his own people. Over the next 5 years, he saw his territory and influence eroded by rival chiefs. Finally, in 1818, Nqqika was defeated by Ndlambe and his influential spiritualist, Nxele. Nxele provided the spiritual justification for other clans to join Ndlambe; his prophesized that the Europeans had been expelled from their lands and that the Supreme Being of the Xhosa would help Ndlambe defeat the British and Ngqika. Thus, the Fifth Frontier War commenced in 1818. Ndlambe suffered devastating losses: the British captured over 20,000 head of cattle, and hundreds of warriors were lost in a nearly successful attack on Grahamstown in 1819 (according to legend, the town was saved when a woman--granted free passage by Xhosa tradition--smuggled gunpowder in to the defenders). Nxele was eventually captured and drowned trying to escape from Robbin Island.

In exchange for their assistance, the British--under Governor Lord Charles Somerset-- took all of Ngqika's and Ndlambe's land east of the Groot-Vis River. This, "ceded territory", would be a neutral zone, providing a buffer between European colonists and Xhosa clans. All Xhosa in this region--including Ngqika himself--were forcibly evicted from their land. This result made another war all but inevitable. The situation was further complicated by the devastating effects of the mfecane.

By 1819, the Great Elephant--Zulu Chief Shaka--was the undisputed ruler of southeast Africa. His violent expansion resulted in a major upheaval in the region which came to be known as the mfecane. As entire nations fled his warriors, they encountered and displaced additional peoples in the heavily populated area. The resulting domino effect reached as far north as the Great Rift Valley in Kenya, as tens of thousands of people were forced to defend their lands or flee in terror.

The Xhosa were among the first to feel the effects of Shaka's reign. Chief Faku led the northernmost Xhosa clan, the Mpondo. This skilled leader managed an uneasy truce with Shaka while successfully defending his land from the mfecane.

Other Xhosa clans, like the Thembu and the Gcaleka, absorbed the migrating clans into their own clans as second class citizens. These clans were collectively referred to as Mfengu, which loosely translates into "those who seek service". Eventually, these groups carved out niches in Xhosa territory and adopted the Xhosa language and customs. Today, the Bhaca, Bhele, Zizi, Hlubi, and Qwati are recognized as Xhosa clans although claim no lineage to traditional Xhosa chiefs.

A Nation Divided

By the late 1820s, the conditions for war were ripe. 5,000 British settlers, promised free land and unlimited opportunity, found themselves in the middle of a decades-old war in an overpopulated region. The mfecane had deposited several small chiefdoms into the outlying regions of Xhosa territory. The Gcaleka clan, bolstered by stragglers from the mfecane began to feel constrained in their lands east of the Kei river. The Thembu, Xhosa neighbors to the northeast, began moving into the Kat River region (located in the "ceded territory"). Ngqika was merely a figurehead, stripped of his land and power by the British. Finally, an increasingly discontent Xhosa populace was fed up with Ngqika and looked elsewhere for leadership. They would find it in an unlikely source: Ngqika's own son, Maqoma.

Disillusioned by his father's growing dependence on the British (and, it was rumored, their alcohol), he took a small band of followers into the Kat River region located within the "ceded territory". "Borrowing" supplies from the unsuspecting Thembu, Maqoma established a formidable outpost in the heart of what was to be a neutral buffer between African and European settlements.

The British authorities watched with concern as Maqoma grew in both strength and daring during the mid 1820s. As long as he confined his to the Thembu clan, they were content to remain on the sidelines. Whether Maqoma raided a European settlement or one of Ngqika's followers is uncertain. What is certain is that the British authorities eventually made repeated appeals to Ngqika to control Maqoma. Ngqika was powerless to do anything, and when he died in 1828, the British decided to take matters into their own hands.

In 1829, British troops entered the Kat River valley, routing Maqoma and his followers. Maqoma was forced to retreat back to the Kei river and his lands (as well as the lands of the now powerless Ngqika clan) were divided among British settlers and loyal Khoisian tribes in the area. Maqoma considered his cattle raids an internal affair and considered this attack a gross injustice. Although victims of his raids, some of Khoisian tribes recognized Maqoma's royalty and right to land. In addition, many Khoi Khoi had joined Maqoma's clan throughout the years. The Khoisian people were therefore sympathetic to his plight. They allowed him to defy his expulsion and graze on some of his old lands. Although the British probably knew this was happening, they opted not to provoke any more hostilities.

The tenuous calm lasted until 1833, when Maqoma was invited to a tea party by a local Missionary. The bitter Maqoma was heard to comment, "I see no Englishmen in the Kat River, there are none in Grahamstown...I have got them all in [my land] with their wives and children, living in safety and enjoying every protection; and yet I am accounted a rascal and a vagabond...". Some of the more conservative guests were disgusted by the treasonous words of this ungrateful savage. When the Cape Mounted Rifle contingent arrived, Maqoma was escorted away and out of the settlement.

For some strange reason known only to history, Maqoma was not arrested for being in violation of his expulsion order. Perhaps the British feared a Xhosa uprising. Perhaps the diverse personnel of the Cape Mounted Rifles (which included Khoi among the rank-and-file) were sympathetic to his cause. Whatever the reason, the peace did not last long.

In 1834, Maqoma's brother Xhoxho was herding cattle in the "ceded territory". A British patrol, responding to the transgression, shot and wounded Xhoxho in the head. To the Xhosa, this was an act of war. "It is better that we die than be treated thus...Life is no use to us if they shoot our Chiefs." In reality, the patrol probably neither knew nor cared who Xhoxho was. He was just another nuisance to them.

When the Sixth Frontier War finally broke out in late 1834, it was indecisive for nearly a year. A Xhosa expedition into the Colony resulted in dozens of civilian casualties, but few significant military victories. When the British responded, they forced Maqoma back into the Amatola mountains. The steep cliffs and narrow ravines proved an impregnable natural fortress; waging an expert guerilla campaign, Maqoma inflicted hundreds of casualties among British forces.

Meanwhile, Chief Hintsa of the Gcaleka clan watched on from the outskirts. The Galecka clan took its name from the eldest son of the great Chief Phalo. Located in the lands to the east of the Kei River, the remained estranged from the their Ngqika cousins and relatively untouched by Colonial expansion. During the 1820s, they absorbed several small clans fleeing the devastation of the mfecane. By 1834, they were the largest Xhosa clan and regarded as legitimate leaders of the Xhosa people. While Maqoma did not need Hintsa's permission to wage war with the colonists, he did seek Hintsa's assistance. Hintsa was offended by the British actions, but did not want to risk a large scale war with them. Although he did not provide direct aid, he did not object to the action, providing de facto approval for other chiefs to join Maqoma's cause.

The British, now under the command of Colonel Harry Smith, were frustrated by Maqoma. Having enjoy easy victory on the plains of the Cape Peninsula, Colonel Smith was humiliated at his inability to pin down the elusive Maqoma. He turned his efforts to the next best target: Hintsa. Claiming the Gcaleka were providing support to Maqoma, Smith crossed the Kei river and ransacked nearby villages. A frustrated Hintsa appealed to the British to negotiate, who finally agreed. With a promise of free passage, Hintsa went to Smith's camp.

The resourceful Smith had other plans. Taking Hintsa prisoner, he demanded Maqoma surrender and all local chiefs pay a huge ransom in cattle and horses for Hintsa's release. The local chiefs recognized Hintsa's authority, but were not directly under his rule. The official story was that Hintsa was taken as both protection and guide on an expedition to retrieve Xhosa cattle. The Xhosa believe they took Hintsa to his execution. Whatever the truth, Hintsa was shot and killed by Smith's troops during this raid, and his body mutilated. Outrageous treatment for a direct descendant of Chief Phalo. Moreover, a large number of the Gcaleka's refugee population was growing weary of life as Mfengu (those who seek service). Sensing an opportunity, they fled Gcaleka land and joined the British contingent (Xhosa tradition suggests these people were captured and enslaved by the British). Needless to say, the Gcaleka clan would never again trust the British. The local chiefs vowed to press the fight.

Although protected by Amatolas, life for Maqoma and his followers was difficult. After nearly a year of stalemate, they grew weary of war. In addition, Lord D'Urban, governor of Cape Colony, was feeling increased pressure from England to justify the war's high cost in life and property. In September, 1935, the two factions reached a peace agreement. In exchange for their traditional lands west of the Kei river, the Xhosa chiefs agreed to become British citizens of the now larger Cape Colony. They would be allowed a fair amount of self rule, but would ultimately report to a Cape-appointed representative. The British would add the old "ceded territory" to an additional small amount of land west of the Kei and call the new area Queen Adelaide's Province.

Both sides claimed victory. Maqoma had gained considerable influence for resisting the best British troops. He had also made an emphatic claim to traditional Xhosa lands. Lord D'Urban boasted an end to a bitter war, a substantial increase in the size of the Colony and position for a final blow against the Xhosa. This blow would be administered by Colonel Smith himself, now appointed as administrator of Queen Adelaide's Province. He did not hesitate to take revenge on his old foes for losses in battle. He established a series of military posts along the frontier border, and forced humiliating acts of compliance from local Xhosa chiefs.

Before Smith could tighten his grip, news of his actions reached London. Appalled by the "hero" of their African campaigns, the British government recalled Smith and refused to ratify D'Urban's agreement. An inquiry would conclude the Xhosa had "ample justification" for their war against the colonists. Smith's replacement was Andries Stockenstrom, a Colonial official of Boer descent. He was ordered to treat the Xhosa as sovereigns and establish diplomatic ties with them.

This "treaty system" of dealing with the Xhosa kept the peace for nearly a decade. Even Maqoma himself considered Stockenstrom a man of his word and trusted him implicitly. Unfortunately, not all Xhosa shared his commitment. While most chiefs honored their agreements with the British, small, lawless bands began rustling cattle from the colonists again in the early 1840s. Stockenstrom appealed to the Xhosa chiefs to prevent the raids, but they could do little to stop them. Eventually, Stockenstrom would retire--the issue of the cattle raids left for his successors to resolve.

Meanwhile, Lord D'Urban sat by patiently. Embarrassed by the inquiry and subsequent rejection of his agreement, D'Urban was eager to exact his own revenge on the Xhosa. It is important to remember that the British established themselves as a world superpower on the wealth of their colonial holdings. They had encountered--and defeated--indigenous cultures in the past and the Xhosa would be no different. The British considered the Xhosa to uncivilized savages and severely questioned their tactical abilities. Maqoma had done more than simply embarrass D'Urban...he cost him money and prestige.

D'Urban continued his plans undaunted. To the north, he spearheaded efforts to take control of the territory of dispute between the Boer farmers and the Zulu Kingdom. In 1840, the Boers conspired with Mpande to defeat his brother Dingane and capture the Zulu Empire. They succeeded but a series of land disputes weakened both sides considerably. The Zulu lacked the technological skill to defeat the Boers, while the Boers lacked the manpower to effectively defend their newfound territory. D'Urban took advantage of this situation, orchestrating a British takeover of the Boer Republic, Natalia, in 1843. Only the Xhosa prevented the English from controlling the thousands of miles of coastline stretching northeast from the Cape up to Port Natal.

"No More Treaties"

Despite their "victory" in the Sixth Frontier War, little had changed for the western Xhosa clans. There was still a land shortage and now the Xhosa found themselves on an island in the middle of two major British colonies. Moreover, Andries Stockenstrom, the colonial administrator who had earned the trust of the Xhosa through his "treaty system" of settling land disputes, had retired and his replacements did not share his views on native relations. The situation was further complicated by the twists and turns of internal Xhosa politics.

In 1829, the death of Chief Ngqika left his clan in disarray. His dealings with the British had ostracized him from many local chiefs, and his once powerful clan fell into relative obscurity. Many Xhosa followed his son, Maqoma, leader of the war against the British, but the clan itself considered Maqoma an outcast. Instead, the Ngqika pledged their support behind the chief's other son, Sandile.

In 1842, Sandile came of age and made claim as the legitimate heir to the Ngqika clan. Still smarting from battle losses to Maqoma, the British recognized Sandile's claim. Maqoma was furious. He went so far as to devise a plot to accuse Sandile of witchcraft--a capital charge among the Xhosa. When the plan failed, Maqoma slipped into depression and alcohol. Eager to keep him at bay, the Colonial authorities were only too happy to keep him supplied with plenty of brandy. As Maqoma fell into the depths of alcoholism, trouble was brewing on the frontier. Increased restrictions on land use and a severe drought were the main ingredients in this boiling cauldron of tension; any minor incident would be enough to spark violence.

The incident in this case came in 1846 when a Xhosa man was arrested for stealing a trader's axe. Before he could be detained, his friends sprung him free, killing a colonist in the process. The outraged authorities demanded that Sandile hand over the culprits, but he was powerless to do anything. Sensing an opportunity, the British labeled this an act of defiance and sent a detachment to enforce to force compliance.

As the slow moving column (including a large train of supply wagons) made its way through the Amatola foothills, the Xhosa attacked. They easily overran the force, destroying or taking nearly all the weapons and supplies in the process. The Seventh Frontier War, or War of the Axe, would last two years. Both sides would suffer serious casualties, although large scale engagements were rare. Sandile proved to be a capable leader, keeping the British off balance and earning the respect of local chiefs. Finally, the British resulted to a war of attrition, burning villages and destroying crops. Starvation eventually forced Sandile to the negotiating table late in 1848.

Like Hintsa before him, Sandile went to the negotiations under the banner of peace only to be imprisoned. Their leader in chains and their crops in ruins, the Xhosa reluctantly agree to lay down their arms. In exchange to an end to hostilities, the British annexed the former Queen Adelaide's Province--which had been promised to Xhosa only 10 years earlier--and renamed it British Kaffraria, a province of Cape Colony. To keep the land in loyal hands, the British awarded the land to the Mfengu--refugees from the mfecane who had grown weary as second citizens of the Gcaleka clan.

Without land, cattle, or opportunity, many Xhosa were forced to abandon their traditional lifestyles and look for work in Cape Colony. The situation was aggravated by the new Cape Governor--Harry Smith. The same Colonel Harry Smith who had been embarrassed by Maqoma in the Sixth Frontier War. The same Major-General Harry Smith, war hero of British campaigns in India. The same Sir Harry Smith who was knighted for his victories in foreign wars. The same Major-General Harry Smith immortalized as the "Modern Major-General" by Danny Kaye.

Eager to prove once-and-for all who was master, Smith immediate set forth to humiliate and subjugate the Xhosa. At one point, his boot on Maqoma's neck, he said, "This is to teach you that I have come hither to teach [the Xhosa] that I am chief and master here and in this way shall I treat the enemies of the Queen." The defiant Maqoma replied, "You are a dog [commoner] and so you behave like a dog".

He continued with a series of theatrical, humiliating events aimed at quelling Xhosa spirit (at one point he tore a piece of paper, threw the pieces to the air and proclaimed, "No more treaties!"). Tensions mounted further as Smith banned many Xhosa traditions and began the wholesale settlement of traditional Xhosa lands. Once again, a severe drought made the situation critical.

A Xhosa spiritual leader named Mlanjeni claimed to have the answer. Saying the nation had been polluted, Mlanjeni claimed that only by sacrificing cattle could the Xhosa win favor with the spirits and drive the whites out. Realizing he faced the prospect of another war, Smith decided to settle the issue before it started. In December 1850, a British column once again entered the Amatola Mountains in an area known as Boomah Pass. Once again, the column--with it's slow moving ox wagons--got bogged down by the Amatola's natural barriers. Once again, the Xhosa attacked and routed the column. The Eighth Frontier War had begun.

This time, all the local Ngqika chiefs joined the battle on Maqoma's side. In addition, the Thembu and the Ndlambe--smaller clans to the northeast joined the battle. Some Khoisian peoples joined Maqoma as well, while the Mfengu and other non-Xhosa speaking Africans fought with the British. Any sense of restraint was thrown out the window. Maqoma led his warriors into the British settlements, burning and destroying as he went. At one point, the helpless Smith was trapped in one of his own forts and forced on the defensive. After a few months, however, the British had regrouped and went on the offensive. Unable to reach Maqoma in his mountain fortress, Smith, once again, crossed the Kei River and attacked the neutral Gcaleka. At this point, the British stopped distinguishing between soldier and civilian. Friendly or hostile, any African--especially Xhosa speakers--was a potential enemy to be eliminated.

The desperate Smith was running out of options. Despite confiscating livestock and supplies from the Gcaleka, he could not capture Maqoma. Smith's swansong came at a place called Waterkloof. This high ground controlled the valleys leading into and out of Maqoma's stronghold. repeated attempts to take it had failed, resulting in significant casualties. When the British finally breached the Xhosa defences, Maqoma and most of his warriors had already escaped. The news of Smith's follies was greeted by a termination order from London, relieving him of his command

Maqoma could take little pleasure in this small victory, as the Xhosa were being systematically exterminated from Southern Africa. The new governor, Sir George Cathcart was equally ruthless in his treatment of the Xhosa. By 1853, the starved and exhausted Xhosa surrendered. Under the terms of surrender, each of the warring clans was forced to cede land and give up any claim they had on disputed land.

The situation went from bad to worse in 1854, when a mysterious disease swept through western Xhosa cattle herds. A Xhosa proverb says, "Cattle are the nation; if they are dead the nation dies". One can therefore scarcely imagine the horror the Xhosa felt as they sat and watched their cattle whither and die before them. By 1855, the lung-disease (believed to be introduced by European cattle) had spread across the Kei River and into Gcaleka, Thembu, and Pondo herds as well. It seemed as though every Xhosa clan's herds were stricken with the disease, and there was no end in sight.

Salvation finally came in 1856 in the form of a young girl named Nongqawuse. At the mouth of Gxarha River in Gcalekaland, she had a vision in which all the dead Xhosa chiefs appeared to her, promising to return and expel the whites if the Xhosa sacrificed their cattle and their crops. This vision was eerily similar to those of Nxele and Mlanjeni. Despite the fact that those ended in failure, the Xhosa were desperate enough to try anything. Word of the vision spread and more Xhosa accepted it. Belief was further reinforced when Governor Cathcart was called off to Russia and killed in the Crimean War that same year (the interpretation being that the ancestors started a war on foreign shores to distract the British). As the day of sacrifice approached early in 1857, many Xhosa were convinced this was their only chance.

The British authorities watched with trepidation as the lung disease swept through Xhosa herds. The Eighth Frontier War had just ended, and they feared a massive destabilization within the Xhosa nation would result in another war. When the young prophetess, Nongqawuse, had her vision, the British decided not to act.

The death of Governor Cathcart in the Crimean War brought a new administration to Cape Colony. Sir George Grey took charge in 1856 with a mandate to "civilize" the Xhosa. He dismantled the remaining vestiges of Xhosa society, stripping chiefs of everything but their titles. He also introduce work programs designed to bring much-needed labor to the Cape. In addition to solving a critical labor shortage, relocating the Xhosa would also open up the fertile lands between the Natal and Cape Colonies to settlement. Grey deduced that a failure of the prophecy would result in widespread famine, forcing the Xhosa to accept his work program. While more and more Xhosa sacrificed their crops and herds late in 1857, Grey sat by and watched.

The February, 1857 day came and passed and nothing happened. As the days passed, many Xhosa came to realize the gravity of their error. With no crops, and no cattle to trade for food, the Xhosa starved. Entire villages on both sides of the Kei river withered and died. At least 15,000 among the Ngqika and local clans west of the Kei. East of the river, another 40,000 are estimated to have died among the Gcaleka and Thembu. The survivors were reduced to begging in the streets. Grey did nothing. He offered aid to those who accepted employment. The others were "sovereigns" and left to fend for themselves. The Xhosa had little choice, reluctantly accepting Grey's offer. There are no accurate figures for the total number of people killed or displaced by this holocaust. Still, of an estimated 100,000 Xhosa living west of the Kei, there were less than 40,000 left by 1860. An estimated 150,000 total were relocated to work camps throughout the Colony during the same period.

Grey swept through the decimated lands of the Gcaleka with ease. Once again they establish a buffer zone and awarded it to the Mfengu chiefdoms. Many of these groups had traditional disputes with the Gcaleka and the two groups clashed once again. By 1875, the British once again found themselves involved in a land battle between rival African tribes. Seeking to defeat the Xhosa once and for all, the British embarked on the Ninth Frontier War in 1877. Still reeling from the tragic cattle killing, the remaining chiefdoms could offer little resistance. By 1878, the war was over and the Xhosa were effectively conquered.

The Modern Era

"First the white people came and took a part of the [Xhosa] land, then they encroached and drove them further back, and have repeatedly taken more land as well as cattle. They then built houses--missionary establishments--among [Xhosa people] for the purpose of subduing them by witchcraft; that at the present time there was a mlungu (missionary) in every tribe; that they had even got as far [north] as the Mpondo; that lately no less than four kings had died, and their deaths were attributed to witchcraft by the abelungu (missionaries); that during [my] stay in Grahamstown the soldiers frequently asked what sort of a country the Zulus had; if the roads were good for horses; if they had plenty of cattle..."

This quote comes from a Xhosa named Jakot. Captured during the First or Second Frontier War, Jakot was raised as a child with colonists. As an adult, he moved between the African and European societies, serving as guide and interpreter. In 1830, accompanying an expedition from the Cape to Zulu King Dingane, Jakot relayed his chilling observations (warnings?). Within 60 years, all of the southeastern coast of Africa was under British control.

The 1894 conquest of Mpondoland was the final defeat for the Xhosa people. The British enjoyed significant land holdings but also faced a far greater problem: what to do with the conquered Africans. In 1833, slavery was abolished throughout the British empire. Furthermore, any landholding citizen of the British empire had the right to vote. To the British, living in a country where 80% of the population was African, this was a frightening concept. Before the Xhosa had a chance to learn their rights, the British enacted a series of laws aimed at limiting Africans' right to vote. For example, land ownership had to be individual, not communal. This meant that any adult children living at home--even if they had families of their own--were denied their vote (as the land was owned by the paternal head of the family). For the Xhosa, it was normal to have 15-20 adults in any given household. This law effectively disenfranchised them from the political process. Nonetheless, a small educated middleclass began developing within the Transkei (northern Xhosa land). This group established a small political voice for itself; seeds for an intellectual revolution were planted.

With Xhosa out of politics, the British and the Boers turned on each other. The discovery of the world's largest diamond fields in Kimberly in 1870 aggravated the situation. Tensions would mount until war broke out in 1899. Although thousands of Africans would die in the British-Boer, the Xhosa were relatively isolated from hostilities. After defeating the Boers in 1902, the British continued their subjugation of the Xhosa people. After nearly a decade of uneasy peace, the British decided to grant South Africa limited independence, forming the Union of South Africa as a part of the commonwealth. With the Boers assuming greater control over the country, the political situation for the Xhosa (indeed all Africans) steadily deteriorated

In 1912, a group of African leaders assembled at the small town Bloemfontein. The meeting would result in the African National Congress, the first Black political body in Africa. The Zulu people were instrumental in the ANC's inception, with President John Dube, and Pixley ka Seme as treasurer. Other ethnic groups were involved as well, with Sol Plaatje (from the Baralong of the Free State) and Walter Rubusana (Xhosa) assuming leadership positions. Political turmoil between the diverse ethnic groups robbed the ANC of its effectiveness. In just one year, the Natives Land Act would restrict Africans to just 7.5% of South Africa's land. The ANC was powerless to prevent this.

After World War I, the Boer nationalists rose to power. Displaced from their families and confined to mining and farm camps, the Xhosa had little power to do anything to oppose them. In 1934, South Africa declared its independence from the British commonwealth and things went from bad to worse. The onset of World War II increased the need for mine and farm labor, and more and more Xhosa were relocated to urban areas. While the mine owners became rich, Xhosa workers were segregated into dormitories or suburban ghettos. Poverty ran rampant, crime, alcoholism and domestic violence (unheard of in traditional times) spiraled out of control.

It was a painfully vicious cycle: Boer and British policy led to instability within the African community. This instability led to policy changes aimed at keeping the Africans in check. These policy changes led to greater instability within the African community. In 1948, the nationalists seized control of the country, instituting the first laws under the policy of apartheid, or "separateness". All Africans were confined to small parcels or land, ethnic identity cards were issued, freedom of movement was rescinded, interracial marriages were forbidden, and Africans were denied the right to own land or business.

The ANC, plagued by internal squabbles and corruption for most of its life, still was not a major voice on the political scene. Rivalries between Zulu, Xhosa and other ethnic groups kept the leadership powerless and without direction. Young south Africans became disillusioned with the traditional leadership of the fledgling organization. They were ready for change.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born in the Transkei in 1918. Son of the Thembu chief's top counselor and a member of the royal family of Madiba (Thembu clan), Mandela was groomed for leadership at an early age. Reveling in tales of traditional life, Mandela decided early on to fight for the freedom of his people. When his father died, he became a ward of the chief and determined to become a lawyer. After participating in some minor protests, he met with a diverse group of young ANC leaders. Along with Anton Lembede William Nkomo, Walter Sisulu, Oliver R. Tambo, Ashby P. Mda, and Jordan Ngubane, Mandela felt the old leadership was only an intellectual movement and out-of-touch with the people.

The ANC Youth League was established in 1944 , and within a year Mda and Lembede were sitting on the National Executive Committee of the ANC. Lembede would die prematurely in 1947, and Mandelea was a natural to fill the void. Elected ANC Youth League (ANCYL) Secretary that same year, he and Sisulu (a Xhosa of mixed parentage) set out to replace the ANC leadership. When the apartheid regime took over in 1948, their mission became all the more important.

Their first major political action came in 1952, when the ANC called for the repeal of six early apartheid laws called the "unjust laws". When the government refused, the ANC called for Africans to defy the harsh measures. The ensuing Defiance Campaign was a resounding success among the Xhosa living in the Eastern Cape. Thousands of people, including Mandela, Sisulu and the others were arrested for the defying the laws over a five month period, and the Xhosa established themselves as leaders in the struggle against apartheid. They scored an additional victory in the Treason Trial (which lasted until 1961), when all charges against them were dropped.

Despite the success of the Defiance Campaign, the seeds were sown for a feud that would split the ANC and nearly destroy the nation. The old guard Zulu leadership of the ANC--raised on the concept of nonviolence--felt the Youth League was too confrontational. Couple with traditional disputes, the situation grew much worse. The Zulu would eventually leave the ANC and form the Inkatha Freedom Party in 1975. The South African government took advantage of this rivalry, actively encouraging violent attacks between the two groups throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Over time, tensions eased and the groups learned to coexist.

Burned by the Defiance campaign and ensuing Treason Trial, the government retaliated; violently. Beatings, torture, abductions, murder, deportations, and house arrests were the norm as the minority Afrikaner (as the Boers were now known) government attempted to instill order. Mandela responded in 1961 with the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe, or MK (Spear of the Nation). This group was committed to armed resistance against apartheid and targeted government buildings for bombings and other forms of sabotage. Condemned as terrorists, Mandela and others were arrested and imprisoned in 1963.

Despite this oppression, the intellectual movement among the Xhosa and other South Africans matured into the Black Consciousness movement. Urging cultural pride and providing philosophical and moral arguments against apartheid, young Xhosa like Steve Biko (murdered in police custody in 1976) sacrificed their lives to voice their plight.

Political unrest continued into the 1970s, when the government instituted the Homelands policy. These areas were based on traditional lands and offered black South Africans "independence". In reality, it was just an attempt to concentrate blacks into manageable districts. These homelands would turn into seats of violence during the 1980s as the ANC-Inkatha feud (now a predominantly Xhosa-Zulu feud) reached a boiling point. Hit squads--groups of young black South Africans--were shuttled from homeland to homeland by government security forces to aggravate the situation. Both sides committed major atrocities against innocent civilians.

Global condemnation and the threat of civil war led to Mandela's release in 1990, and the repeal of apartheid legislation in 1991. The first multi-racial elections were scheduled for 1994, but first the country would teeter on the brink of civil war. Over 4,000 people were murdered in political violence in 1993. Disputes between rival clans, politicians, and civil leaders resulted in riots and demonstrations throughout the country. In a nationwide radio address, Nelson Mandela of the ANC and Chief Buthelezi of the Inkatha Freedom Party appealed to the nation for a peaceful transition. Whether tired of 300 years of violence or hopeful for the future, the population responded, and the crisis was averted. Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994, and the nation began a new era. Thabo Mbeke, a Xhosa and ANC veteran, followed Mandela in 1999.

Today, the Xhosa remain active political and business leaders. In addition, they are rediscovering the pride of their cultural heritage, and look forward to the challenges of the future.

Xhosa Society

Social Structure

The modern Xhosa are South Africa's second largest ethnic group, with 7 million people. Their ancestors settled the Eastern Cape region of present-day South Africa with the Bantu southern migration 2000 years ago. The nation itself dates back to a chief named Tshawe, who is believed to have united the peoples who eventually became the Xhosa (the dates of his reign are unknown). The nation can be further broken down into chiefdoms, based loosely on familial clans. The two oldest are the Gcaleka and the Rharhabe, who claim direct descent from Tshawe. Other major chiefdoms include the Thembu, Bomvana, Mpondo, and Mponomise. Included among Xhosa speakers are the clans referred to as the Mfengu (those who seek service). These chiefdoms, including the Bhaca, the Bhele, the Zizi, the Hlubi, and the Qwati were absorbed into the Xhosa nation in the mid 1800s.

Each chiefdom is lead by a paramount Chief, or King. This line is established by birthright and is passed to the eldest son of the first, or Great Wife. If the paramount dies prematurely, a regent (usually the chief's brother or trusted advisor) will be selected until the heir is old enough to rule. The paramount chief rules over several small territories, each consisting of multiple familial clans. Each territory (and the clans within it) is ruled by a lesser chief, who may be related to the paramount or head of a powerful clan. Aside from collecting taxes and providing manpower, lesser chiefs have little contact with the paramount. They are free to resolve disputes and administer their territory as they see fit.

This system was destroyed during the colonial period and re-instituted as part of the Homelands policy of the 1970s. Unfortunately, the chiefs were chosen by the apartheid government without regard to the legitimacy of their claims. Lacking the support of the people, these puppets were completely dependent on the South African government for their positions. As such, they worked with the government in quelling political unrest and silencing their enemies. The repeal of the apartheid laws in 1991 unleashed a generation of resentment; revenge was swift and brutal. The new constitution enacted after multiracial elections in 1994 sought to re-install legitimate heirs to their respective chiefdoms. Today, most chiefs enjoy ceremonial powers only, while a few are directly involved in politics.

Family Life

Each chiefdom consists of a number of clans. Each clan is an extended family. The patriarch sits at the head of each family, and makes all major decisions concerning his brood. He may have multiple wives, but control of the family falls to the eldest son when the patriarch dies. This is usually the first son of the Great Wife. In the case of large holdings, the first born sons of other wives would also be entitled to a share of the family assets.

With the help of his sons, he is also responsible for building the family home and managing the family's most important asset: its cattle. The traditional Xhosa economy was based on livestock and cattle was the most valuable commodity. Even today, wealth is measured by the size of one's herd. In fact, for traditional Xhosa, marriage is not possible without cattle. The lobola, or bride price, is paid by the groom to the father of the bride for the right to marry. As of October, 2001, lobola in the Eastern Cape was 8-10 cattle--at US $1,000 a cattle, marriage can be quite expensive! This is also a reason why few men today have multiple wives. Although it is permitted, few can afford it. In addition to their economic value, cattle were also important in religious and social ceremonies. On such grand occasions, a cow is sacrificed to honor ancestral spirits.

Like most traditional Bantu societies, the Xhosa placed their women in subservient roles. They were responsible for most domestic chores as well as tending to crops. During most of the 20th century, Xhosa men were forced to migrate to mines, farms, and factories for work. Over time, women took on more and more responsibility until they eventually took over managing the home. Thus, traditional roles are increasingly rare among the modern Xhosa. With the fall of apartheid, young Xhosa girls now have access to education and greater employment opportunities.

Both boys and girls undergo ritual initiation before they are considered adults. During these ceremonies (at about 18 for boys and 16 for girls), groups of young adults are isolated from the rest of the community. The process can last several months as the initiates are circumcised and taught important customs and responsibilities. Men cover themselves in white clay during this period, signifying their spiritual cleansing.

Social Customs

By the 1994 elections, many Xhosa people had lost their sense of cultural pride. Early missionaries, in their attempts to "civilize" the Xhosa, dismissed their beliefs as evil or insignificant. Those who held onto their beliefs were disillusioned by the Homeland leaders of the 1970s (who were really puppets of the apartheid government). These leaders attempted to use traditional culture to further their own corrupt regimes. Culture came to be associated with such abuses. Now, many Xhosa are rediscovering their cultural traditions.

Like their Zulu and Ndebele cousins, the Xhosa people have unique beadwork and styles of dress. Xhosa women are known for their long flowing dresses and unique headpiece. This style is only worn by married women and symbolizes their pride in their cultural heritage. While the cloth headdress is considered "traditional", it only dates to the introduction of mass produced fabric (early 20th century).

Another "tradition" that dates to the European arrival is the traditional pipe. Men and older women have the privilege of smoking tobacco from the traditional pipe at important ceremonies and events. The size and shape of the pipe reflect one's social standing (the bigger, the better). At certain celebrations, elder women and men enjoy their pipes with a traditional corn-based beer called umqombothi.

Religion and Spirituality

Most Xhosa today are Christians, while a few continue to practice traditional religions. The rift began in the early 1800s, when the first European missionaries arrived. Beginning a conversion process that would last until the 1950s, these missionaries established a philosophical divide between "School" Xhosa (raised in missions and Western schools) and "Red" traditionalists (people who painted themselves with red ochre as a commitment to their ancestors). Ironically, the "School" Xhosa would evolve into the intellectual movement which would eventually lead to the end of apartheid.

Regardless of their inclination, many Xhosa continue to place a high importance on ancestors and ancestral spirits. During most religious and social ceremonies, some form of acknowledgement is made in honor of the ancestors. In addition, many Xhosa continue to consult the Sangoma--a spiritual medium between the physical and spiritual world--for relief of physical and spiritual ailments. Identified with the "gift", Sangoma learn their craft through a lengthy isolation. They use traditional herbs and roots as well as spiritual incantation to contact the spirit world for guidance. This guidance can help cure illness, relieve a streak of bad luck, or bless a child.

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